Does Location Matter for Your Band’s Chances of “Making It”?
The following is the latest entry in a series of editorials that tackle topics more personal in nature than MetalSucks’ usual fare. These journals bridge my personal experiences with the world of metal while offering a behind-the-scenes look at forces within the industry and a peek behind the curtain of how this website operates. Previous entries:
When I started brainstorming this series of posts nearly a year ago, I had already planned to eventually pen an article on the topic of whether a band’s location matters when it comes to “making it.” It’s a question I’m asked frequently by local/unsigned bands and one that comes loaded with misunderstanding of how and why bands end up becoming successful.
What I couldn’t have known, of course, is that a pandemic would come along and alter the entire concept of what location even means for bands. Without shows and tours, a band’s hometown is way less important than ever — for now. Will that dynamic hold? Concerts will come back, of course, and when they do, local scenes will regenerate. Influencers, however you define them (whether label folk, managers, agents, etc. or so-called social media “influencers”), will still have sway.
Still, I think it makes sense to keep our new reality in mind when talking about how location can impact a band’s shot at success. The floodgates of location-less livestreams and the general interconnectivity the internet offers fundamentally alter the dynamics of what it means to be from a place. The question is how much.
But let’s back up a bit first. What was it like in the Before Times? How did bands who “make it” end up doing so?
The proliferation of the internet over the past two decades has unquestionably made it easier for new bands to reach an audience. You don’t really hear much about how a band “packed up all their things and moved to L.A. and slept in a dirty storage locker in search of their dreams” anymore because it doesn’t happen like that anymore. Lamb of God are from Richmond, VA. Killswitch Engage are from western Massachusetts (far from Boston). The Black Dahlia Murder are from suburban Detroit. Whitechapel, from Knoxville. Gatecreeper from Arizona. Etc. Point being, bands from all over can “make it,” and they do.
But the metal industry, for the most part, was (and still is) run by an exclusive industry club mostly centered in New York and Los Angeles and a handful of other smaller hubs like Philadelphia and Chicago (in Europe, most of the industry is based on London and throughout Germany — but I’m going to focus on the U.S. for this article). The industry is not exclusive by design — we’re mostly accessible and friendly people, and we don’t purposely erect metaphorical walls that keep us separated from the hoi polloi — but it can be hard for outsiders to work their way into any scene or friend group, especially this one, so often bombarded by musicians looking for that one big break. While the internet has broken down a lot of barriers for bands in all places, it still matters that large swaths of the biggest metal decision-makers and tastemakers are in those cities. Or at least it did before the pandemic (more on that in a bit).
The metal industry’s centralization in a handful of cities matters because everyone in the metal industry is friends with one another. It’s a very small industry, and everyone knows everyone! If I show up alone to a concert at Saint Vitus or Webster Hall or the Playstation Theater or even a friggin’ arena, I’m not truly going alone: within minutes I’ll run into folks I know from labels, publicists, other writers, managers, agents, and we’ll be chatting and drinking and watching the show together all night long, just like we have for years, sometimes multiple times a week. We’ll go out after the show for “one last drink” (which often turns into three or four) or perhaps grab a quick bite together before to pad our stomachs for the long night ahead. Some of these people become closer friends than others, but these are the folks we work with on a regular basis year in and year out, and they are our friends. There is nothing special or even “cool” about us (as you can see from the above photo), we’re just a bunch of friggin’ nerds who happen to friggin’ love heavy music and being around it, enough so that we’re OK with earning less money than we likely would in another field (it’s worth it!).
How does this affect your band from Birmingham, Alabama? It’s simple: if Rachel from Relapse or Robert from Roadrunner (made up people) ask me to check out a band, that’s going to hold way more sway than a cold email from a person I’ve never met. These are my friends, I spend a ton of time with them, so of course I trust them more. And, as I wrote about earlier in this series, we, as humans, are always likely to side with our friends, to see things the way they do, and it’s our shared tastes that brought us together in the first place.
What’s more, bands from certain places simply have a better chance of getting these folks’ attention, finding an “in.” Your Los Angeles-based band’s guitarist used to be in a different band that was signed to Metal Blade who is pals with their social media guy… that’s an in! You know the booker at Saint Vitus from the hardcore scene back in the day… that’s an in! These opportunities simply do not exist if you’re trying to conduct your band’s business out of Omaha. In turn, industry folks are a lot more likely to see your band if you’re playing in their scene, hanging out at the same shows, rubbing shoulders with the same folks. It’s not that your thrash band from Green Bay, WI isn’t as good as a similar band from Queens, it’s just that I happened to see the one from Queens because we live in the same city, or that I was introduced to them by a friend because we’re at the same shows. It really is that simple.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what happens to that setup and hierarchy in the post-pandemic world.
Right now, at least — pandemic still raging — none of that applies. A band from anywhere has as much of a chance as anywhere else. “Who you know” can still help you get a leg up, but the ability to pull a crowd isn’t currently getting anyone signed. This has been true for a while, to some extent, ever since bands started gaining internet traction on MySpace in the mid ’00s, but it’s especially true now. That said, the other side of the coin is that the inability to perform live makes it really hard for bands just getting started right now. Their progress has been stalled. You can’t livestream to an audience you don’t have.
The loci of metal have dispersed over the past year. And this hits me personally, too. Part of my decision to stay in upstate New York this year as long as I have is because of the complete lack of FOMO for NYC: without shows, there is no scene! Just as I have, many of the folks I mentioned above, the ones I’d regularly run into at shows — peers and friends that comprised our scene — have packed up and gone elsewhere. Many have stayed in NYC, too, of course, but the flight is real: Colorado, London, Los Angeles, North Carolina, the burbs, upstate… everywhere. I see their posts on social media, as they see mine, and I know that the scene is never going to be the same again, or anything resembling it. Scenes all change over time, of course, but this feels like a line in the sand, a drastic demarcation.
The scene will regenerate, of course. It will build itself back up, it will be active, it will even thrive. The metal majors aren’t suddenly going to move their offices (although more of their employees will likely work remotely). But a year from now — after two years away! — there will be a whole new cast of characters in the scene — and running it, in a different way — and I’m not sure I care to be a part of it in the way I once was. Like others who have moved, this feels like a good moment to pick up, go somewhere else and do something different than the exact same thing I’ve done for the past 15 years. I’m not renouncing metal, far from it, or the people who stay, or who become part of the new scene; I have a tremendous amount of respect for those people, and I’ll still go to shows (albeit less frequently), I just can’t be that person in the scene at every friggin’ show every friggin’ night anymore. It’s tiring, and I’m tired of it, and this is as good of a moment as any to try something different.
The result of that, once live shows and “the scene” come back, is that I simply won’t be as in the know anymore, as in touch, in the conversation, “relevant” (“you haven’t been relevant for years, or ever, Vince,” I hear you chuckling). I’ll do what I do remotely, from where I am — as many in the heavy music world and beyond already do — and what I can’t do, I simply won’t fret about. That’s alright! I’m secure enough in my career, my contacts, my livelihood, my abilities, that I know I can continue to make it. I don’t really care whether some 25 year old thinks I’m important or not, or even whether I am “important” or not, whatever that even means; I’m content in my own little corner I’ve built over the years, doing what I do, with the people I do it with. And if that ends at some point because it’s not longer sustainable, or I walk away, or whatever reason, so be it… I had a great friggin’ run.
Bringing this article full circle… what does all this mean for your band, whether you’re from the center of it all, Brooklyn, NY, or far away from it in Brooklyn, MI?
Location matters. Not as much as it used to, perhaps. But it still matters. That doesn’t mean bands not from NYC or L.A. can’t make it, it just means it’s more difficult for them, one more obstacle to overcome.
The best advice I can give bands that aren’t from or near an industry center is the same advice I have always given bands, and the same advice I will be preaching ’til Dio rises from the dead: write good songs. That’s it. That’s the number one thing that will get you noticed by fans and industry folk alike. Image, technical ability, stage production, studio production — all those things matter to some degree, but none of them matter at all if you haven’t got the songs to back it up.
There is hope for you, aspiring metal artist in Montana. You can do it right where you are. But you’d certainly increase your chances by moving to a big city.